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Fiction reviews

 

Barbara Ker Wilson - The Quade inheritance

21 November 1988

The Quade Inheritance
Barbara Ker Wilson
William Heinemann Australia


Published in The Australian


"Women's fiction" is how this transcontinental, historical saga would probably be categorised - at least in publishing parlance. Were the plot a bit more extravagant it may have merited the additional description of "bodice-ripper". Such labels are irksome - however one feels less inhibited in applying them in clear-cut cases.

Beginning in 1861, The Quade Inheritance is the story of Imogen Quade, the unpleasant, ambitious daughter of Sir Oswald Quade - baronet of the ancestral seat of Selbury Quade - and his wife Louisa. Imogen gives us her credentials early in the novel when at the age of nine she tells a dying child - the daughter of a neighbour:

...and you are going to die soon, Edie, my mama said so, she said you weren't long for this world. And then you'll be put into a dark hole in the ground, under a tombstone with your name on it, and the worms will begin to eat you up, ever so slowly...

By this stage it's a little late for Sir Oswald to send his progeny back to the baby factory, so he and Louisa engage a governess, the quasi-genteel (of course) Miss Annette Duval, to school Imogen for her inheritance.

Imogen bears an uncanny physical and temeramental likeness to the dynasty's founder, Dame Margery Quade, who had had her rival for the Selbury land burned as a witch in Elizabethan times. Indeed every second chapter Imogen poses, threatens, collapses, or engages in general histrionics under Dame Margery's glowering portrait on the stairs - in case we've missed the connection. Such repetition, for the sake of the slower reader, is one of the book's hallmarks.

Nevertheless, The Quade Inheritance is highly imaginative: one wishes better writers than Wilson - and there are many - would think out their plots so well. It is researched impeccably. There are references to a whole host of contemporary themes, including the American Civil War, the Salvation Army, and the ideas of Darwin, Huxley, Shaftesbury, and Charles Dickens, all of which, commendably, actually impinge on the action.

The shadow of Oliver Twist, indeed, hangs heavy over the whole story. For Imogen, to her horror, soon has a little brother to usurp her role as heiress to Selbury Quade, the one thing in life that matters to her.

She tolerates little Nicky until he reaches five. Then, one fine day, she dispassionately sits him down and tells him of the tadpoles that must by now be filling their nets in the lake. He becomes enthusiastic, and Annette Duval agrees to take them both down for a look. But first, Imogen tells Annette sweetly, I must show you the maze. As Nicky waits outside the gigantic hedges, Imogen takes her governess in, gets her hopelessly lost, and ducks out again in time to tell Nicky to go down to the lake - Miss Duval will follow shortly. She then grasps a bee (she's allergic to bee-stings) and promptly collapses. Meanwhile Nicky reaches the perilous lake, and is about to fall in - when a gypsy rides by.

Now (most implausibly) this gypsy has the previous day lost his own five-year-old boy to a massive trap on the Quade land. Seeing his opportunity for revenge, he grabs Nicky and rides off with him. The boy is eventually sold to a master sweep in London, and spends several years chimney-cleaning.

So Imogen grows up to inherit Selbury Quade - whereafter Fate catches up with her. Annette Duval (now married and living in France) discovers that Nicky may still be alive. She alerts Imogen. Better disposed to him now, and seeing the need to create an heir (she is barren), Imogen sets out after him - to the Antipodes, to which he has apparently migrated...

Much tragedy transpires before the story reaches its reasonably neat, and just, resolution - more than in the average formula novel, anyway. Indeed Barbara Ker Wilson's unflinching depiction of her story's "Dickensian" elements - there are innumerable dying children, for instance - is one of its strengths. (One hopes she has never read Dickens's most cynical remark: "When in doubt, kill a child.")

Perhaps this book's greatest strength is in the research: not only are the minutiae of the chimney sweeper's art conveyed convincingly, and interestingly, but so are the many forces then changing society as a whole, as the fin de siecle period draws near.

The actual writing, sadly, is unwaveringly pedestrian. It comprises a curious meld of modern and nineteenth century styles, with the odd disjointing Americanism. Nothing particularly striking comes out of the meld: there probably isn't a memorable sentence in the book. The dialogue is particularly soapy. ("It's almost impossible to get reliable help these days" should have been buried long ago. Wilson doesn't even employ it as the hackneyed joke it has now become.)

At many points the conveniences-of-plot are a little too convenient, and there are some dreadful literary cliches. The worst is Dame Margery's portrait, to which people turn in times of confusion, as if in her pitiless gaze a solution may be found to the conundrum at hand. It's redolent of 1930s Hollywood at its worst.

Unhappily, too, Wilson's characters respond to their situations so predictably that there is little real excitement, for all the sweeping changes that overtake them: everyone behaves so relentlessly in-character. One never gets properly inside these people, regrettably. Changes of heart on basic issues - such as Imogen deciding she wants to rediscover her brother - are all but unexplained. There's generally an excuse within the plot, mind you - but the all-important internal rationale is missing.

Still, for all the often breathtaking banality of The Quade Inheritance, I think I can feel a mini-series coming on.


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